Barbara Lippert’s Critique

Last year at Cannes, by the time Budweiser’s “Whassup?” had been ecstatically received and then given the Grand Prix, fellow Americans had already started backbiting. The gist of the complaints: Any number of brands could have appropriated the same campaign since the work essentially came readymade from filmmaker/actor Charles Stone III, and the campaign was already so annoyingly overexposed that the agency had nowhere to go with it.

This year it became obvious that Budweiser is a smarter and more flexible ad vertiser than either complaint al lows for. And in naming August Busch IV its Ad vertiser of the Year this Sat urday, the Cannes In ter national Advertising Fes tival is acknowledging not only the beer behemoth’s sheer mar keting muscle but also its surprising edginess and ability to transcend the ex pected. In of ficial terms, the award honors the Bud weis er campaigns’ “outstanding and consistent quality … over the past few years” (Louie the lizard won a silver in ’98).

I asked festival director Romain Hat chuel how many years the award covers, and he said it’s not exact but roughly from “the frogs on up.” That’s interesting, be cause I saw the frogs as bikini-babe replacements and the lizards as frog replacements and “Whassup?” as lizard replacements. Talk about your ever-changing wells of psychosexual significance. The most intriguing part of Budweiser’s campaigns, though, is the ad story-within-a-story that’s been going on for the last few years.

The frogs, three croakers on the rocks, each controlling his own mono syllable, were so funny and blank and startling that they became big. But a three-syllable range, warts and all, presents a serious limitation in storylines. So it was genius to introduce a lizard family across the pond to provide color commentary. Not only that, but Louie turns out to be one bitter lizard, so consumed with jealousy that the frogs got the gig in stead of him that he hires a hitman ferret.

These were the Sopranos of the swamp before there was a Sopranos. Showbiz Louie and his killer neuroses made for its own kind of opera.

As with “True,” there was a core of honesty here that resonated. That’s because it’s all a thinly disguised tale of jealousy between agencies!

Goodby, Silverstein, out on a limb in San Francisco, watched as DDB soaked up kudos for the frogs (which actually originated at D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, St. Louis). So they came up with a scenario for stealing DDB’s thunder and bumping them off. That An heu ser-Busch could see the wisdom of one agency making fun of another’s work (all in good fun, of course), actually put the work on the air and then manage the campaigns to ex tend the life of each is pretty amazing.

DDB as the core agency played the Paul McCartney role—sweet and entertaining. Goodby added a John Lennon element—dark and funny and wicked. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that together, Paul and John were greater than the sum of their individual parts. That’s why they hated each other.

The other truth that A-B seems to have preternaturally understood is that the public has an endless ap petite for self-referential advertising. But Budweiser’s ads don’t just parody any advertising, they shoot right at the brand itself, along with hallowed Busch icons like the Clydes dales and brewmasters past. It takes a strong man to pay for the pleasure of being parodied by the likes of Louie (who says his family has been in the same swamp for more than 5,000 years and talks about his grandfather the “flymaster”).

“Whassup?” has resonated for other reasons. It’s all about connection, feeling so close to your best buds that you can watch TV together through the phone. It’s also a mainstream campaign featuring black and Latino people, which is, sad to say, a breakthrough.

After all the awards for “Whassup?” Goodby again took aim. And how better to parody the spots’ street cred than to come up with the most exaggerated preppy scene in creation?

With the relentless tracking of our president’s youth ful indiscretions and underachievement, we have an idea of how difficult it is to grow up in the shadow of a famous and powerful namesake dad while being groomed for the family business. Busch has mastered the almost im possible art of keeping an open playing field of agencies happy while the work continues to be so strong it even survives self-parody. He is not only a brewmaster but an ad master.